A Series of Answers to Common Questions

Sam Shamoun


An argument that Christians often use to demonstrate that Jesus is God according to the Bible is that he had the authority to forgive sins. However, according to the Gospel of John (cf. John 20:23) the disciples also had the authority to forgive sins. In light of this fact, why don’t Christians also accept the Divinity of the disciples seeing that they too forgave sins like Jesus?


Let us first take a careful look at the immediate context so as to fully appreciate what the Apostle John was trying to communicate:

"On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ John 20:19-23

John, an eyewitness to these events, says that Jesus breathed on the disciples and could give the gift of the Holy Spirit. John wasn’t the only writer to claim that Jesus grants the Holy Spirit:

"Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants upon his throne, he foresaw and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he [Jesus] has poured out this which you see and hear." Acts 2:30-33

Christ performed two functions that the OT ascribes to Yahweh:

"then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being." Genesis 2:7

Yahweh God breathed into the first man the breath of life in order to animate his body.

"You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the LORD, am your God and there is none else. And my people shall never again be put to shame. And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even upon the menservants and maidservants in those days, I will pour out my spirit." Joel 2:27-29

God says he will pour his Spirit upon all flesh, something which we just saw Christ do! It is clear in light of the foregoing that Jesus was doing the very acts that Yahweh performs, demonstrating that Jesus is God Almighty!

The reason Christ breathed on the Apostles was to give them spiritual life, new birth, and to prepare them to receive the gift of the Spirit who would enable them to perform their mission. This mission included the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins which results in eternal life for all who would believe in the name of God’s Son, just as the very conclusion of John 20 emphatically states:

"Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.’ Eight days later, his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.’ Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name." John 20:24-31

In other words, the disciples were to forgive sins by preaching the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, telling all who accepted the message that God had forgiven them of their iniquities. The text in John 20 isn’t implying that the disciples had the authority to forgive sins like Christ did. Rather, John’s point is that Christ gave them his own authority to act in his name and proclaim the message of eternal life.

In order to highlight this point, notice what the Lord Jesus told his followers on other occasions:

"Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’" Matthew 16:16-19

"Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered IN MY NAME, there am I in the midst of them." Matthew 18:18-20

Christ gave Peter the keys to the kingdom, he gave his disciples his own Divine authority to make decisions and issue commands which would be binding upon all of his followers. The Apostles couldn’t do all these things if Christ hadn’t given them this Divine right.

The foregoing should now help make it clear why the Apostles could proclaim the forgiveness of sins, since Christ gave them the authority to act in his name. Unlike Christ who forgave sins on the basis of being God’s Son and the Savior of the world who lays his life down as a ransom:

"But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’" Matthew 1:20-21

"And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘My son, your sins are forgiven.’ Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, ‘Why does this man speak thus? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, ‘Why do you question thus in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, "Your sins are forgiven," or to say, "Rise, take up your pallet and walk"? But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins’ -- he said to the paralytic – ‘I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go home.’ And he rose, and immediately took up the pallet and went out before them all; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We never saw anything like this!’" Mark 2:5-12

"And he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this, who even forgives sins?’" Luke 7:48-49

"They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.’" John 4:42

"This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh." John 6:50-51

The Apostles didn’t have any inherent ability to forgive, and therefore couldn’t simply pronounce forgiveness of sins on the basis of their own authority. The Apostles were to function as Christ’s emissaries, his envoys, having been invested with the risen Lord’s authority to perform miracles, signs and wonders:

"He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me." Matthew 10:40

"‘He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me.’ The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, even the demons are subject to us IN YOUR NAME!’ And he said to them, ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I HAVE GIVEN YOU AUTHORITY to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you; but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’" Luke 10:16-20

"Truly, truly, I say to you, he who receives any one whom I send receives me; and he who receives me receives him who sent me." John 13:20

"since you desire proof that Christ is speaking in me. He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful in you. … I write this while I am away from you, in order that when I come I may not have to be severe in my use of the authority which the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down. 2 Corinthians 13:3, 10

Putting it simply, the Apostles could only forgive sins in the name of the Lord Jesus, on the basis of Christ’s authority as Son of God and Savior who procured the redemption of the world. These next examples confirm that this is how the Apostles forgave sins, not on the basis of their own authority like Jesus did, but in the name of Christ who alone forgives sins:

"Then he said to them, ‘These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached IN HIS NAME to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high.’" Luke 24:44-49

"And Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you IN THE NAME OF JESUS CHRIST for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’" Acts 2:38

"There he found a man named Aeneas, bedridden for eight years, who was paralyzed. And Peter said to him, 'Aeneas, JESUS CHRIST HEALS YOU; rise and make your bed.' And immediately he rose. And all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord." Acts 9:33-35

"And he commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that he is the one ordained by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that every one who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through HIS NAME." Acts 10:42-43

"And after there had been much debate, Peter rose and said to them, ‘Brethren, you know that in the early days God made choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God who knows the heart bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us; and he made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you make trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.’" Acts 15:7-11

"And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.’ And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand upon your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and bear witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from the people and from the Gentiles -- to whom I send you to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified BY FAITH IN ME.’" Acts 26:14-18

As it stands, John 20:23 does not prove that the Apostles had the same ability to forgive sins like Christ, nor does it refute the plain teaching of God’s inspired Word that Jesus is the Son of God and the Savior of all men. If anything, an accurate reading of John 20:23 actually provides additional proof that Jesus is the eternal Word of God, who is fully God in essence, since it shows Christ performing specific acts and granting authority to others to act on his behalf which God alone can do and give.

All biblical references taken from the Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the Holy Bible.

* This specific question was taken and adapted from this article.

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